Although firefighters, police, paramedics, and other first responders at the World Trade Center and Pentagon probably saved thousands of lives on 9/11, they paid a horrible price, including the loss of 403 New York police and firefighters. 9/11 taught us that first responders are a cornerstone of homeland security. Unfortunately, it also showed us that first responders were not adequately equipped to serve on the front line of a war against terrorism. Little has changed since 9/11. On Sept. 27, 2004, Homeland Security Secretary Tom Ridge announced that an Office of Interoperability and Compatibility will be established to address this problem. Still, more than three years after 9/11, neither this new office nor any other agency has the resources or broad mandate needed to address this critical issue.
At 9:59 a.m. on 9/11, the first of several evacuation orders was transmitted to first responders in the World Trade Center's North Tower. Police inside heard the order on their radios, and most evacuated safely. However, firefighters were using communications equipment that could not receive the order, so many would never learn of the impending collapse. When this tower fell 29 minutes after that first announcement, 121 firefighters were still inside. None survived. At the same moment, two hundred miles away, communications failures were making it harder for firefighters to stop the Pentagon fires, putting more lives at risk.
President Bush told New Yorkers that "the first minutes and hours after attack, that's the most hopeful time to save lives. And that's why we're focusing on the heroic efforts of those first-time responders. That's why we want to spend money to make sure equipment is there, strategies are there, communications are there to make sure that you have whatever it takes to respond." I commend the president for this promise. Sadly, the promise is still unfulfilled.
By tradition, every police department, fire department, and emergency medical service makes its own decisions about communications equipment. With over fifty thousand independent decision-makers nationwide, the predictable result is a tangle of incompatible systems. All too often, firefighters from adjacent towns cannot communicate, city police cannot communicate with state troopers or FBI agents, and paramedics cannot communicate with firefighters or law enforcement. Some fire trucks carry five different radios in the hope that just one will work with the other responders at the next big fire. Even if this expensive strategy works when firefighters are in the truck, the strategy fails once they leave the truck; each firefighter can carry only one handheld radio.
Use of outdated equipment makes matters worse. Some responders risk their lives on equipment from the early 1970s (an era before cellular phones and personal computers existed), because there is no funding for replacements. Some firehouses must hold bake sales in an attempt to fund life-saving communications equipment. The recession has forced many cities to cut funding even further since 9/11. Ironically, America still spends more money on this dangerously ineffective patchwork infrastructure than it would if every municipality used a system that was consistent with a national strategy provided by the federal government.
Another scarce resource is spectrum. Cellular carriers, TV broadcasters, and consumers with wireless ("Wi-Fi") connections to their computers already compete for this valuable resource. The "shortage" of public safety spectrum comes, in large part, from the lack of a national strategy, and from lack of funding. Spectrum is wasted reconciling incompatible systems. Spectrum is wasted by outdated technology. Spectrum is wasted because not enough towers have been built. Spectrum needs for public safety could be reduced, freeing spectrum for other important uses, if we had effective federal leadership, and close cooperation between the Department of Homeland Security, Federal Communications Commission, and Department of Commerce. For example, making spectrum available might bring affordable high-speed Internet access to more communities, while raising funds from spectrum auctions.
We could create an infrastructure that supports interoperable voice and data services, while consuming less spectrum and fewer tax dollars, but this cannot happen if the federal government merely assists fifty thousand local agencies. The federal mission must be broadened to providing a coherent vision of the nation's infrastructure, and genuine leadership to achieve that vision.
In order to save money, and lives, we must significantly fund a federal office. Federal support should be available to local agencies that replace old equipment, provided their new systems are consistent with the national vision. Without this support, local agencies will have neither the resources nor the motivation to abandon their old ways. In the long run, the state and local tax dollars saved will greatly exceed the federal tax dollars spent. However, the Bush administration has not yet provided significant funding for this purpose. According to GAO, billions of dollars are needed. About $154 million was appropriated for equipment compatibility in 2003, and just $106 million in 2004 and 2005 combined.
This office should also provide technical assistance to local agencies. Otherwise, every 30-person sheriff's office must somehow develop its own technology expertise. The tiny staff that the Department of Homeland Security has assembled so far cannot meet these needs.
If we are serious about protecting lives in the event of another terrorist attack, providing emergency responders with effective equipment is as essential as equipping soldiers going to war. Asking thousands of organizations to determine their own communications standards is like asking thousands of cities to write their own traffic laws – to decide independently whether cars should drive on the right or left side of the road, and whether cars should stop when a streetlight is red or green. Inconsistencies cost lives. Federal leadership is needed, with strong support from the White House. The federal government should establish a national vision for emergency responders, and provide the resources to turn that vision into reality.
Jon M. Peha is a professor of Electrical Engineering and Public Policy and associate director of the Center for Wireless and Broadband Networks at Carnegie Mellon University, www.ece.cmu.edu/~peha.